The cross-border war of words boosts the Liberals, just as the Tories were gaining ground
BY JOHN GEDDES • There’s only so much room at the top of the newscast, on the top of the front page, on the tip of a talk-radio host’s tongue—and so, generally, only one issue can rank as top-of-mind among voters on any given day of a campaign. At the start of last week, the election issue dominating attention was Paul Martin adviser Scott Reid’s remark that parents might blow the $1,200 a year per child payment proposed by the Tories—on “beer and popcorn.” That wasn’t what Liberals wanted Canadians talking about over their morning coffee. But then—in a damage-control coup that even an operator of Reid’s considerable imagination couldn’t have dreamed up—the U.S. cavalry, or at least Ambassador David Wilkins, rode to Martin’s rescue. Wilkins drawled out his now-famous speech demanding that Martin refrain from criticizing the U.S. on the hustings. Suddenly, Reid’s gaffe was small beer.
Of the voters who took note of the Canada-U.S. fight, 31 per cent said it made them more likely to vote Liberal
The eclipse of the suds-and-snacks flap by the Canada-U.S. relations furor was nearly total. “Until then, nothing was working for the Liberals,” said Greg Lyle, managing director of Innovation Research Group, the firm conducting the Maclean’s Canada 20/20 panel, a weekly series of Internet opinion surveys dur-
ing the campaign. “The interesting thing,” Lyle added, “would have been to see what the week might have been like for the Tories if the U.S. hadn’t seen fit to attack the Prime Minister.” Before Wilkins stepped up to the podium, there were signs Stephen Harper’s doggedly policy-driven approach was gaining traction. For instance, the 20/20 panel, which draws on a pool of over 6,000 participants, showed solid support for the Conservative child care policy—the very issue that prompted Reid’s verbal blunder.
But that will be slight consolation to Tories. Wilkins put a gust of wind in the Liberals’ sails. Martin’s dispute with the U.S. was mentioned by 40 per cent of the panel participants, by far their top pick when they were asked what they had noticed about the Liberals. Only 14 per cent cited the beer and popcorn issue, 12 per cent Martin’s child care proposal, and 11 per cent his plan to ban handguns. And the reaction of voters who took note of the Washington-Ottawa fracas couldn’t have been better for Martin: 31 per cent said the conflict made them more likely to vote Liberal.
Lyle says that was no surprise, since 79 per cent of the panel participants started out with an unfavourable view of George W. Bush, reflecting the widely held antagonism of Canadians toward the President. Martin’s crew knew they had a winner on their hands, and cranked up the rhetoric in Friday’s debate, with the PM declaring: “I call it like I see it... I’m going to stand up for Canada.” Harper dismissed the issue as “a series of phony and reckless wars of words.” But, noted Lyle, “Right
HARPER'S doggedly policy-driven approach was gaining traction pre-Wilkins
now, the Canada-U.S. relationship is a lightning rod.”
Still, Wilkins didn’t entirely ruin Harper’s week. The Tories siphoned a trickle of support from the Liberals, about 0.5 per cent, and another 0.3 per cent from previously undecided voters. “It’s inching forward,” Lyle said. “But a small gain is better than a small loss. If the Conservatives kept up at this pace, they’d be closer by election day, but they still wouldn’t be there. They need something bigger.” So far, the kind of volatility the Tories would like to exploit isn’t happening. The poll tracked the voting preferences of 2,574 panellists, and about one in 10 shifted their votes last week.
That’s not a lot of churn. But, then, the pre-Christmas phase of the campaign was expected from the outset to more placid, and the polling was done mid-week, before the first two leaders’ debates. According to last week’s 20/20 panel, the Liberals had 36 per cent of decided voters, the Conservatives 29 per cent, and the NDP 17 per cent. (The Bloc Québécois’ share of the national vote was 13 per cent, but the separatist party holds a commanding lead in Quebec.) There wasn’t much change from the previous week. But some party tacticians predict voters will be watching more closely— and the parties campaigning more aggressively—in January, when two more TV debates are scheduled forjan. 9 and Jan. 10.
LAYTON could use a lightning rod of his own. Only one in 10 shifted their votes last week.
There are signs Harper’s bid to define the issue agenda is working in his favour. His child care policy, which would pay a family $100 a month for every child under six years old, was a solid success with the 20/20 panel. It was the top subject mentioned, by 27 per cent of poll respondents, when they were asked what they had read, seen or heard about Harper
and his party. And of those who mentioned the Tory child bonus, 36 per cent said it made them more likely to vote Conservative. Even more strikingly, the party jumped to being seen as the best on child care by 30 per cent of the panel, up from just 19 per cent the previous week. “That’s unheard of,” Lyle said of the 11-point gain on the child care issue. “It shored up a weakness within their base.”
MARTIN coasts into Christmas as Wilkins pushes ‘beer and popcorn’ off the menu
The Liberals haven’t yet scored that way. Martin’s child care proposal, which would expand regulated daycare and early learning programs by adding $6 billion to the $5 billion announced during last year’s election, didn’t seem to resonate. Just 12 per cent of panellists made it their top mention of subjects related to the Liberal campaign, and of those only 17 per cent said the promise made them more likely to vote Liberal. As for the vow to ban handguns: just 11 per cent mentioned that they had read, seen or heard about it, and only 13 per cent said the stand made them more likely to cast a ballot for the Liberals.
But a less-than-scintillating Liberal platform will not be enough to lift Harper within reach of winning. He must change his image with at least some of the large block of voters who apparently fear him: 60 per cent of undecided voters among 20/20 panellists agreed with the statement “Stephen Harper scares me.” His party fares only somewhat better. Of undecided voters, 47 per cent feel the Tories are too extreme. With those negatives to overcome, Harper could have used a few days to capitalize on a slip-up from the Martin camp. It’s the sort of opportunity that arises
MACLEAN’S/INNOVATIVE RESEARCH SURVEY For complete results, see www.macleans.ca/poll For more election coverage visit www.macleans.ca
only rarely in any campaign. Foreign government interventions are even rarer. M
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